The Ants Go Marching

By, Lauren Davis

 

Toby squatted on the steaming asphalt in his favorite brown flip-flops, shading his eyes against the glare. He twirled his father’s magnifying glass in one damp hand, scattering light like rain as he squinted to check the angle of the sun. It was just past noon so he faced himself east. The air was hot and still; not a single leaf stirred in his small pile. Just as the tips of his ears started to tingle and the skin of his shoulders stretched tight in protest of the heat a puff of smoke ballooned out of the center of the pile. Toby grinned unselfconsciously (a rare thing since his two front teeth fell out) and then he whooped in delight as a tongue of flame licked through next. The fire slid along the dead leaves lovingly, curling them in on themselves until they resembled tiny lost canoes, and then dust. In a moment the small pyre was consumed, and Toby leaped into a jig of triumph as the flames guttered.

“Ye-e-es!” He pumped his arms in the air as he jogged in a tight circle. Toby knew he was procrastinating some, that his glee was maybe a little bit forced and a little too long, but he didn’t care. He’d get to it when he was good and ready. He swiped at his sweaty forehead with one sleeve.

“Okay, ants, you’re next.”

Toby puffed himself up to his full height—a menacing four feet, three inches—as he pointed the end of the magnifying glass at the sandy anthill leaning into the ditch. He couldn’t help imagining the colony inside; in Miss Perry’s class last year they’d had a little wood-framed ant farm, and Toby loved to watch the tiny workers scurrying back and forth, building tunnels on tunnels and bringing food to their queen—but he couldn’t think about that now. He had to make up for the bunny, or the boys at school would never leave him alone.

Toby crunched into the crabgrass that lined the ditch, a sharp brown contrast to the manicured lawn starting farther up the yard. The anthill was propped up against the ragged steel edge of the drainage pipe that ran under the driveway. Toby squatted down again, slightly out of reach of the hill. He hoped it wasn’t fire ants. Miss Perry’d said she knew a kid who was killed by fire ants once. Toby wasn’t sure if he believed her or not, but he wasn’t planning to find out the truth one way or another. He took a deep breath and wondered what he was supposed to do next.

“If I kick you, you’d better not all come out and bite me,” he warned the anthill, twirling the magnifying glass. “I only need one of you. Or maybe two.”

Toby pictured the poor scared bunny and flinched.

“Okay, maybe five. Can five of you come out please, just for a second? I promise not to hurt you,” he said, squinting. He didn’t see any movement. He tried pointing the glass directly into the sand, but nothing happened.

“God dammit, Toby, you sissy,” he muttered.  “Can’t you even burn up ants right? Stupid.” He got up to scrounge around the ditch for a stick, located a suitable one, and stomped back to the anthill. He jabbed the stick in without hesitation.

“It’s just a stupid bunny, anyway, what’s wrong with you!”

He jabbed the hill again, and again. In his mind he saw the little brown rabbit’s panicked eyes as it raced across the circle from boy to boy, trapped, terrified, its tiny heart beating so hard and fast that Toby swore he could see it thumping under its scraggly fur. A wave of ants surged out of the crumbling hill as Toby hacked at it, the skin of his face suddenly tight and salty. He skipped back as the wave reached his toes, remembering himself crying hysterically “Stop it, stop, let her go! Let her go!” as he tugged in vain at the bunny’s tormentors. The older boys just shoved him back, laughing, and Joey Boyd waved a big stick. Toby swung his ant stick viciously, imagining Joey Boyd’s face.

“I’m not a sissy,” Toby declared as he stepped up onto the driveway. He dropped to his hands and knees as the ants flowed out across the mixed concrete, trying to single out a victim. Eventually he had just run down the hill to Miss Weinstein’s room, summoning her with nothing more than his desperate sobs to come and stop the older boys, but by the time she’d huffed up the hill with him the boys had figured out what Toby was up to and let the bunny go. With them just sitting there whistling and no evidence to speak of, Miss Weinstein could do nothing but warn them off and spend the rest of recess trying to convince Toby that not even bunnies could spontaneously die of fright. But Toby knew they could.

He gave up trying to pick an ant; it was like trying to pick one drop of water out of a running faucet. The stream was dwindling fast as the hill emptied out and the ants scattered, taking Toby’s chances with them. He adjusted his grip on the magnifying glass and double-checked the position of the sun. He shifted a little to the left until it was directly behind him. He adjusted his grip again, then switched hands to see if the left was more comfortable. It wasn’t. He switched back. He lifted the glass and lined it up. First he pointed it at the empty concrete, just to see if it was hot enough to scorch. It wasn’t, but the metal handle of the glass sure got toasty so Toby switched it to his left hand again and blew on his fingers for a second just in case. Then he sat down.

“I’m sorry, ants,” he said. He leaned over the edge of the driveway in time to see what was left of the anthill collapse inward, turning a once-great fortress into a lifeless patch of dirt. The ants were routed. Toby started to cry.

“Baby? What are you doing?”

Toby cried harder. Mom was squinting down the driveway at him, holding her long hair off her neck with one hand and fanning herself with the other. When Toby didn’t answer she glanced back toward the house and then came out toward him.

The closer Mom got the harder Toby cried, until in a strangled screech he confessed:

“I killed the ants! I killed their house, and now they’ll die!” Toby launched himself from the ground straight into his mother’s apron, which was streaked with grease and smelled strongly of garlic and onions and heaven.

“Their house? Toby, I’m sure—what is that?” She snatched the magnifying glass from his hand. “Toby, this is your Father’s! What if he had caught—what if you had broken it?! Go put it away right now before he gets home!”

Toby shrank back, tucking the offending hand behind his back. He started to wipe his streaming nose on the back of the other hand, but Mom smacked it away and scrubbed his upper lip with her apron hem. As soon as he was clean she pinched her nose, squinching up her eyes and bumping her glasses onto her forehead like a second sight as she guided Toby back toward the house with one hand on the back of his head.

“The ants will be fine, baby,” she said more gently. “They’ll just build a new house. Ants are very industrious that way.”

“What’s industrious?” Toby sniffed deeply and wiped at his nose again before Mom could stop him.

“Hard-working. Toby, were you…what were you doing with this?” She lifted the magnifying glass.

Toby shrugged.

“I wanted to see them,” he said, and Mom nodded, and led him back into the house to return the glass to Father’s study.

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